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Is an Internet Kill Switch a Good Idea?

County IT leaders mull the possibility of an Internet ‘kill switch.’

by / February 7, 2011

On Jan. 27, many were shocked to learn that the Egyptian government had disrupted its own Internet service in response to a gathering wave of anti-government protests.

By reconfiguring routers not to tell networks how to reach Internet protocol addresses, Egypt effectively turned off the Internet using a technique amounting to what some call a “kill switch.” The country restored its Internet access on Feb. 2, but enough time had passed for people stateside to wonder whether something like this could happen in the United States.

A cyber-security bill has been introduced in Congress that would give the U.S. president similar power, referencing legislation that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced in late 2010 with Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., that, in its original version, would give the president the power to shut down private or government networks. The bill stalled after there were disagreements over what groups should have authority over civilian cyber-security.

If used, the kill switch would have a profound impact on local government, county IT leaders said.

“I think we would survive, but we would be severely hampered in our operation. We have so much tied to the Internet now, especially in law enforcement — much of the information that we get for our law enforcement comes straight from the Internet,” said Terry Bledsoe, CIO of Catawba County, N.C.

Bledsoe said he is confident his people would be able to continue working because of radio technology, but going to paper would be a tough transition. “It would be very difficult for us to go back to paper at this point; all of that instantaneous flow of information would stop immediately,” he said.

Larry Calter, director of Information Services in Snohomish County, Wash., agreed. “We’re kind of dependent on [the Internet] and that ability to mass communicate. We have emergency management Twitter feeds,” he said.

The Hill reported that both the U.S. government and groups like Facebook criticized Egypt’s digital crackdown. But Lieberman said his bill wouldn’t give the U.S. government a unilateral “kill switch,” and that the bill is for national security, not a move to quell anti-government protests.

Bledsoe is more worried about outside cyber-attacks that target financial and structural information. He’s less concerned the U.S. would prompt an Internet shutdown to quell dissidents.

Meanwhile, Calter thinks that the U.S. digital infrastructure is too complex to easily “kill.” There are too many governments, private-sector entities and universities to control. “It would be kind of daunting and then it would take time,” he said.

Regardless of whether it’s possible to shut the Internet down, is it wise?

“It would be a bad idea if the president decided to shut it down. I don’t know what economic consequences would come of that. I don’t know how many lives may be lost by doing something like that,” Bledsoe said.

Calter has mixed feelings when pondering the question.

“Which hat am I wearing? Am I just a regular citizen who’s saying, ‘I think government should be open and transparent?’ Or am I a policymaker somewhere looking at a potential threat who says, ‘I need to have this ability to shut it off?’” Calter said. He has yet to hear a scenario that’s a great reason to turn off the Internet.

The Hill reported that a huge barrier thus far to a domestic digital shutdown bill has been legal wrangling and disagreements, not concerns over personal freedom. Politicians disagree about which agency should handle cyber-security and how the chosen entity would do so. It’s possible that Congress may already have the ability to shut down the Internet thanks to previous legislation. A little-used 1941 provision to the Communications Act of 1934 already gave the president the power to intervene in private networks.


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Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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